World Libraries

Preserving the past, preparing for the future: Modern Chinese libraries and librarianship, 1898–2000s

Abstract: Libraries and librarianship have existed in China for over two millennia. But until just before the end of the last royal dynasty in 1911, libraries were mostly imperial or private institutions. Access was limited to elites and librarians acted as gatekeepers. This began to change with the advent of the library reform movement in 1898, which advocated the building of more libraries, opening them to all persons, and acquiring foreign–language publications. The movement itself lasted a mere 100 days, but inspired two revivals last century. The first occurred after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and lasted until the start of the disastrous Cultural Revolution in 1966. And the second occurred soon after the Revolution’s end in 1976 and is ongoing. Modern librarianship started early last century as a hybrid of domestic and foreign practices before paralleling China’s mid–century isolation from and post–1978 reopening to the world. Individuals, professional societies, and university–level library science programs have all proved instrumental in the modernization process. Democratic voices from the 1890s to the 1930s speak to the current need for national political reform. The Chinese should look in their own libraries (and archives) because they contain the forgotten speeches and writings of native founding–father like democrats who can provide ideas and answers on how best to reform.

 The Premodern, Imperial Past

Tradition claims that the sage Lao Tzu was China’s first known librarian over 2,300 years ago [1]. He oversaw the Heavenly Archives, which housed original government records during the Zhou dynasty (c. 1066–256 B.C.E.) [2]. An accidental discovery by northern farmers in 1899 of inscribed oracle bones and shells led to archaeological digs unearthing over 10,000 more inscriptions and other relics from the legendary Shang dynasty (c. 1600–1066 B.C.E.), and evidence of an ancient royal library [3]. It is unknown whether anything like a comprehensive library existed in China before the Qin dynasty (221–206 B.C.E.). But it is widely known that the first Qin emperor decreed the burning of all books in 213 B.C.E., except those containing select scientific and governmental information. Brave persons hid and saved some banned books until the political climate improved. The Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.–220 C.E.) systematically recovered these books and opened the first centralized imperial library in Chinese history [4]. Also, China’s first known annotated bibliography and classified catalog — containing 603 titles in 13,219 volumes — were created during this time [5].

Until early last century Chinese dynasties ebbed and flowed, as did their imperial libraries. Some were moved to new capital cities [6]. Some were razed during uprisings [7]. These libraries served as archives and depositories of national literature. But only the ruling family, high officials, and noted scholars could use them [8]. Students could use provincial academy libraries [9]. Private libraries housing secular and religious books also appeared. William Sheh Wong writes that "[t]he importance of these libraries cannot be overstated since they were the sources upon which the government relied when its own collections had been damaged" [10]. For centuries, private family libraries have let in scholars and students from all over China [11]. Ordinary persons, however, were mostly illiterate and lacked meaningful access [12].

The main purpose of libraries through the end of the 1800s was to preserve recorded culture. They were called cangshulou (meaning "storage house for books") and not tushuguan (the modern word for library) [13]. Librarianship consisted mostly of guarding these private book–storage houses [14]. Almost all library activity came from the powerful to maintain their power, with library access restricted to educated elites. "Nevertheless, these embryonic libraries both contributed to the preservation of China’s cultural heritage and laid the groundwork for the development of modern libraries and librarianship in China" [15].

 Modern Libraries

The modern library reform movement, termed the "Bourgeois Political Reform Movement" by post–1949 Chinese Communist scholarship, started in 1898. Reformers were mostly elites who favored changes in society along Western models and pushed for programs to educate the masses by opening libraries to them. National development, if not survival, hinged on public education and education hinged on access to adequate libraries. Linking libraries to education contrasted sharply with the 2,000–year–old warehouse concept of libraries open only to elites. Predating democratic political experiments in the 1910s [16], libraries were now urged to provide circulating materials to persons regardless of class. In the vanguard, Zheng Guanying advocated building more libraries open to all and acquiring foreign–language publications. His ideas, along with this brief, 100–day movement, inspired later reformers [17].

The final decade of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) saw many changes from on high [18], but they proved too little, too late to save the ruling family. A 1905 edict abolished the traditional Confucian examination system and started a modern educational system. More edicts and laws followed, mandating the creation of thousands of new schools and numerous libraries. The first public library officially opened in 1905 in Hunan Province and the Metropolitan Library in Beijing in 1909. Libraries were now required to save Chinese classics, spread knowledge, and gather materials for free public use onsite [19].

On January 1, 1912, the Republic of China came into existence and library modernization accelerated. Closed stacks, small entry fees, and no borrowing privileges were the rule in most public libraries. But millions of persons gained access to large numbers of printed materials for the first time [20]. A mass education movement in the 1920s sought to reduce illiteracy and encourage a basic knowledge of citizenship [21]. The government increased smaller public libraries known as people’s educational centers. Over 1,000 of these centers grew by the next decade. Local, grassroots reading rooms sprang up as well. Academic libraries were the most important libraries through the mid–1930s because they had diverse current collections, professionally trained staff, and high caliber equipment [22]. Regarding growth, the number of libraries in China in 1925 was 552. Ten years later — on the eve of the war of resistance against Japanese aggression — that number had jumped to 2,818, almost 2,000 of which were either public (e.g., national, provincial, county, municipal, youth) or popular libraries [23].

The golden age of the library movement [24] ended on July 7, 1937, when war broke out between China and Japan. The Japanese destroyed an estimated 2,000 libraries with over 10,000,000 volumes during just the first two years of the eight–year war. They also plundered many priceless and irreplaceable collections [25]. The National Library in Beijing evacuated most of its rare books and manuscripts to the southern part of the country, eventually shipping them to the U.S. Library of Congress in 1941 for safekeeping until after the war [26]. Almost all academic libraries were occupied, damaged, or destroyed. Furthermore, all public libraries and almost all popular reading centers in the occupied and combat zones were either demolished or used by the Japanese for propaganda and surveillance purposes [27]. Sharon Chien Lin writes that

"[t]hroughout the war years, the Chinese library movement, which had reached such a promising plateau in the 1930s, suffered a great setback. Existing libraries were destroyed or badly damaged, while libraries whose construction was planned were put on hold due to the shortage of funding. It is not an overstatement to assert that the destruction caused by the war against Japanese invasion had a profound negative influence on the development of Chinese libraries for generations." [28]

A civil war resumed between the ruling Nationalist government and insurgent Chinese Communist Party (CCP) after the Sino–Japanese War ended in 1945. As a result, the library movement failed to gain ground and many more libraries fell victim to war [29]. The CCP prevailed and its charismatic leader, Mao Zedong, proclaimed the new People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949, in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square [30]. Initially, the new government realized the important role that libraries could play in helping industrialization and they came to symbolize the power of learning. It stressed the use of libraries as tools in the class struggle. Libraries were opened in trade unions, villages, streets, factories, the military, and even in remote rural areas unfamiliar with libraries. They became an integral part of the socialist reconstruction. Among their functions were the acquisition, preservation, and lending of books, periodicals, newspapers, and other publications that propagandized for Marxism–Leninism [31]. Landmark laws enacted in the mid–1950s revived the library movement. Hundreds of thousands of libraries proliferated at the start of the Great Leap Forward in 1958, although the majority of them were crude and fell far short of adequate standards [32].

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution — typified by anti–intellectualism, ultra–nationalism, lawlessness, a Maoist personality cult, and a repudiation of traditional culture and values — lasted from 1966 to 1976 and doomed libraries. Many closed, some for as long as five years. Books deemed poisonous were banned and burned. Accused of being capitalist tools, academic libraries especially suffered [33]. The Revolution’s ringleaders, hostile to all accumulated knowledge except Marxism–Leninism–Mao Zedong Thought, destroyed the library movement [34]. "The tyranny of the ignorant and the self–righteous," writes Lee–hsia Hsu Ting, "plunged China into an unprecedented disaster" [35]. Mao died in 1976. The Gang of Four and other Revolution perpetrators were soon arrested and brought to justice [36]. But China’s decade–long, self–imposed flogging and isolation retarded incalculably its development.

In 1978 China’s new leaders started the Four Modernizations, a policy of fundamental economic reform aimed at agriculture, industry, defense, and science and technology [37]. They also revived the library movement a second time. Old libraries expanded and new ones opened throughout the 1980s. The number of public libraries grew 45 percent. Academic and special libraries saw similar growth, particularly those featuring scientific and technological collections. Many secondary and vocational school libraries and reading rooms run by trade unions were restored and developed [38]. This decade of progress, however, closed terrifyingly when the People’s Liberation Army clashed with pro–democracy demonstrators in Beijing on June 3–4, 1989 [39]. Despite this internationally televised tragedy, library growth continued. By the end of the 1990s, almost 400,000 libraries were operating and the new, state–of–the–art Shanghai Public Library complex opened. It is one of the ten largest libraries in the world and boldly reaffirms China’s commitment to modern libraries [40].

 Modern Librarianship

Modern librarianship in China started at the turn of last century. Aware of the relatively underdeveloped state of domestic librarianship, many educated elites welcomed foreign practices. By the 1920s American librarianship became the preferred type [41]. Mary Elizabeth Wood, an American librarian and missionary who came to Wuhan in 1899, taught English and played a vital role in introducing and popularizing the American library system. She founded the first modern school library in China in 1910 and opened it to the public. With reading rooms and educational lectures, the Boone Library served as a public library to the city. She also raised enough money to send two college graduates, Shen Zurong and Hu Qingsheng, to Columbia University for library training. These two students became China’s first Western–trained librarians. They and Wood opened the Boone Library School in 1920, which was the first–ever school of its kind in China. Its graduates, along with Shen and Hu, brought American library practices to many Chinese libraries [42]. In the 1920s Wood and one of her students even helped get a bill passed in the U.S. Congress enabling the president to remit the balance of the Boxer Indemnity Fund to instead set up and operate Chinese public libraries [43].

Although influenced greatly by American librarianship in the early part of last century, Chinese librarianship was also shaped by its own thinker–activists. The political theorist, literary figure, history professor, and librarian Li Dazhao was one of the two main founders of the CCP. As head librarian at Peking University (China’s "Harvard," in Beijing and popularly known as Beida) from 1918 to the mid–1920s, he maximized the library’s potential as a center for political activism by collecting, translating, and distributing materials, founding research and study societies, editing journals, and writing articles. He employed a young Mao Zedong as a library assistant in 1918–19, effecting his conversion to Marxism. Moved by a nationalistic reaction to China’s weakness and exploitation as well as the 1917 Russian Revolution, Li encouraged students to return to their villages to teach peasants about socialism and revolution. His underground model of engaged, radical, Marxist librarianship cost him his life in 1927, but became orthodoxy after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 [44].

Professional societies proved crucial in modernizing Chinese librarianship. During the first half of the 1900s, the American Library Association awarded fellowships to study library science in the U.S., approved funding for a library school, conducted library surveys, supported projects encouraging public libraries, and mailed donated books [45]. Following the creation of local library associations, a national Library Association of China formed in 1925 to study library science, develop librarianship, and promote library coordination. Its committees addressed classification, cataloging, indexing, publishing, and professional education [46]. China became one of the 15 founding members of the International Federation of Library Associations in 1927. Mary Elizabeth Wood signed the charter on behalf of China, which remained an active member until the late 1930s (before rejoining in 1981) [47]. The China Society of Library Science formed in 1979. Its activities include research, publishing, training, holding conferences, and international cultural exchange. The establishment of this and other related professional societies, such as the Chinese Archives Association, advanced greatly the growth of local and global librarianship discourse and is a major accomplishment of the current era [48].

Formal schooling in library science is a hallmark of modern librarianship. As mentioned above, the first regular library school in China was founded in 1920. The second one opened at Chongqing’s National College of Social Education in 1941. It lasted seven years. There were numerous other short–lived schools and vocational programs before university–level library science departments took root and grew [49]. Peking University opened its library school in the historic year 1949. The Boone Library School was absorbed and expanded by Wuhan University three years later. These two programs became four–year undergraduate departments in 1956, graduating about 100 students each year [50]. The huge demand for trained library personnel in the 1950s prompted the creation of many correspondence, evening, and part–time schools. Radicals during the Cultural Revolution rejected librarianship as a science and profession. They suspended library education, destroyed teaching materials, and reassigned professors to unrelated positions [51]. The post–1978 era has seen a shift away from the Soviet to the American model of library education, the development of graduate education in librarianship, and an increase in the number of library schools from two to over 50. In addition, the emphasis of librarianship has changed from preserving and circulating materials to retrieving and communicating information [52].

Contending with tradition and turmoil, modern librarianship in China has progressed over the last eight decades. More work remains to achieve world–class status [53]. But if China’s commitment to modernity continues, then this should happen soon [54].

 A Postmodern, Democratic Future?

"For those concerned about democracy and freedom in our world," writes Bruce Gilley, "there is no more important place than China" [55]. China’s struggle with these two ideas is well documented. Democratic voices that emerged in the 1890s — like those of Zheng Guanying and the modern library reform movement — and lasted until the Japanese occupation in the 1930s speak to the current need for national political reform. Then as now, China underwent profound change. Since 1989, the ruling CCP has championed economic reform but stifled dialogue on national political reform. Many observers think that such dialogue is inevitable. If correct, then where should the Chinese look to find ideas and answers on how best to reform? [56]

"... [A]s China grapples to find alternatives to the PRC’s Marxist–Leninist–Maoist legacy — as one day soon it must — intellectuals and political leaders should be encouraged to remember that China has another legacy to draw on: a cadre of founding father–like intellectuals who envisioned a path to openness and democracy and even articulated it in their native language. Their forgotten speeches and writings lie in Chinese libraries and archives awaiting rediscovery, just as the classics of Greek and Latin antiquity lay sequestered in medieval monasteries awaiting the Renaissance." [57]


The author thanks Dr. Bernadette Yu–ning Li, Professor and Director of the Institute of Asian Studies at St. John’s University, Queens, N.Y., USA, for allowing him to take her fall 2004 "China in the Modern World" seminar and write the initial draft of this article; Dr. Tsing Yuan, Professor Emeritus of History at Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio, USA, for his feedback and help; and, Dorothy Beck, Anne Leva, and Vickie Tamborrino, the Interlibrary Services staff at St. John’s University Library, Queens campus, for fulfilling the author’s many requests.

An earlier version of this article was presented at the Fourteenth Annual Graduate Student Conference on East Asia held at Columbia University in New York City from February 4–5, 2005.


[1] Lao Tzu’s exact dates are unknown. Some scholars place him in the sixth century B.C.E., and others two centuries later. Regardless, he is credited with writing the Tao–te ching (literally, Classic of the Way and Its Virtue) and founding Taoism. For more about him and his book, see The Way of Lao Tzu (Tao–te ching), translated with introductory essays, comments, and notes by Wing–tsit Chan (New York: Bobbs–Merrill, 1963).

[2] John Barclay, The Seventy–Year Ebb and Flow of Chinese Library and Information Services: May 4, 1919 to the Late 1980s. (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow, 1995), 3; Sharon Chien Lin, Libraries and Librarianship in China. (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1998), 1; William Sheh Wong, "The Development of Archives and Libraries in China: An Historical Account," Libri 26 (1976): 140–55, 141.

[3] Lin, 1; C.H. Lowe, "Books and Printing in China, Before Gutenberg," Chinese Culture 20 (June 1979): 111–22, 111–12; Endymion P. Wilkinson, Chinese History: A Manual. Rev. and enl. ed. Harvard–Yenching Institute Monograph Series, 52 (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2000), 390–98.

[4] Lin, 3; Wong, 141–42.

[5] Wong, 142.

[6] Ibid., 148.

[7] Ibid., 142, 144; John H. Winkelman, The Imperial Library in Southern Sung China, 1127–1279: A Study of the Organization and Operation of the Scholarly Agencies of the Central Government. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society; new ser., v. 64, pt. 8. (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1974), 8–9.

[8] Lin, 3.

[9] Ibid., 4; see generally Timothy Brook, "Edifying Knowledge: The Building of School Libraries in Ming China," Late Imperial China 17.1 (1996): 93–119.

[10] "The Development of Archives and Libraries in China," 144.

[11] Lin, 4.

[12] Cheuk–woon Tam, The Development of Chinese Libraries under the Ch’ing Dynasty, 1644–1911. (San Francisco: Chinese Materials Center, 1977; Reprint of edition published in Shanghai, 1935), 92–93; Wong, 151.

[13] Lin, 5.

[14] Priscilla C. Yu, Chinese Academic and Research Libraries: Acquisitions, Collections, and Organizations. (Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press, 1996), 2.

[15] Yitai Gong and G.E. Gorman, Libraries and Information Services in China. (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2000), 17.

[16] Bruce Gilley, China’s Democratic Future: How It Will Happen and Where It Will Lead. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 3.

[17] Gong and Gorman, 18–19.

[18] R. Keith Schoppa, The Columbia Guide to Modern Chinese History. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 50–56.

[19] Lin, 5; Yu, 93.

[20] Wong, 152.

[21] Lin, 6.

[22] Ibid., 9; Wong, 152–53; Yu, 3.

[23] Lin, 9–11 (specifically Tables 1.2 and 1.3).

[24] Ibid., 8.

[25] Ibid., 10.

[26] See generally Margaret C. Fung, "Safekeeping of the National Peiping Library’s Rare Chinese Books at the Library of Congress, 1941–1965," Journal of Library History 19 (1984): 359–72.

[27] Lin, 11–12.

[28] Libraries and Librarianship in China, 12.

[29] Lin, 13; Wong, 153.

[30] Jack Gray, Rebellions and Revolutions: China from the 1800s to 2000. 2d ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 285.

[31] Barclay, 27–28; Lin, 15; John Pateman, "Libraries and Development in the People’s Republic of China," Asian Libraries 8 (1999): 47–49, 48.

[32] Lin, 16.

[33] Barclay, 97–98; Gong and Gorman, 29; Lee–hsia Hsu Ting, "Chinese Libraries During and After the Cultural Revolution," Journal of Library History 16 (Spring 1981): 417–34, 422.

[34] Gong and Gorman, 29; Lin, 17.

[35] "Chinese Libraries During and After the Cultural Revolution," 420–21.

[36] Gray, 381, 385; See generally A Great Trial in Chinese History: The Trial of Lin Biao and Jiang Qing Counter–Revolutionary Cliques, Nov. 1980–Jan. 1981. (Oxford: Pergamon, 1981).

[37] In addition to the Four Modernizations backed by the government, a former Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution named Wei Jingsheng began advocating publicly for a fifth modernization: democracy. Consequently, he spent most of the next 18 years as a political prisoner before being exiled from China. See Ian Buruma, Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing (London: Phoenix, 2003): 88–117; see generally Wei Jingsheng, The Courage to Stand Alone: Letters from Prison and Other Writings. Kristina M. Torgeson, ed. and trans. (New York: Viking, 1997).

[38] Lin, 23.

[39] See generally Zhang Liang, comp., The Tiananmen Papers, Andrew J. Nathan and Perry Link, eds. (London: Abacus, 2002).

[40] Bing Wang, "The Development of the Three Largest Chinese Libraries in the Twentieth Century," Library History 19 (Mar. 2003): 13–22, 17; Lin, 24–26; Liu Wei, "The Shanghai Digital Library Initiative," Asian Libraries 8 (1999): n. pag.; Pateman, 49; Wang Renfang and Wu Jianzhong, "A Palace for Knowledge: The New Building of the Shanghai Library," Asian Libraries 7 (1998): 339–42, 339.

[41] Lin, 5.

[42] Gong and Gorman, 22; Lin, 7, 164.

[43] Barclay, 4; Lin, 7–8.

[44] Barclay, 8–9, 15; Gray, 198–200; Stephanie Kirkes, "Mao as Library User and Worker: How Early Experiences in Traditional Chinese Libraries Contributed to Mao’s Revolutionary Ideas," American Libraries 7 (Nov. 1976): 628–31, 630; Diane M. Nelson and Robert B. Nelson, "‘The Red Chamber’: Li–Ta–chao and Sources of Radicalism in Modern Chinese Librarianship," Journal of Library History 14 (Spring 1979): 121–28, 122, 124–27; Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China. 2d ed. (New York: Norton, 1999), 295–99, 332.

[45] Lin, 8; Ming–yueh Tsay, "The Influence of the American Library Association on Modern Chinese Librarianship, 1924 to 1949," Asian Libraries 8 (1999): 275–88, 286–87.

[46] Gong and Gorman, 23; See generally Tsing Yuan, "Tung Li Yuan (1895–1965) and the Chinese Modern Library Movement," unpublished paper presented at Columbia University’s Chinese Connection Conference held in New York City on September 10–11, 2004 (copy on file with the author).

[47] A.J. Evans, "Chinese Libraries in the 1930’s — as Viewed from Early IFLA Records — Actes du Comité International des Bibliothèques," Libri 39 (1989): 231–36, 231–32, 235.

[48] Barclay, 165–68; See generally Teresa Wang Chang and Ophelia Chun–yin Liu, "Library Association of China, Taiwan," Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science, Vol. 2: Des–Lib, 2d ed., edited by Miriam A. Drake (New York: Marcel Dekker, 2003), 1585–90.

[49] Lin, 164–65.

[50] Barclay, 44; Lin, 166.

[51] Lin, 167.

[52] Gong and Gorman, 35–36; Lin, 170, 172, 180; Xue–Ming Bao, "From ‘Book Collection House’ to Open Library: New Impression of Public Libraries in Shanghai, China," Public Library Quarterly 19 (2001): 25–35, 26; Yu, 5–6.

[53] Hu Ming Rong and Haiwang Yuan, "Qualified Librarians are Key to Modernization of Chinese Libraries," Kentucky Libraries 66 (Summer 2002): 18–20, 19; Jinhong Tang, "The Changing Face of Library and Information Science Education in China in the 1990s," Asian Libraries 8 (1999): 17-22, 20–21; Lin, 181.

[54] Gong and Gorman, 37.

[55] China’s Democratic Future, 4.

[56] "Orville Schell, "China’s Hidden Democratic Legacy," Foreign Affairs 83 (July/Aug. 2004): 116–24, 116–17.

[57] Ibid., 124. For contact information on libraries and archives in the People’s Republic of China, see Gong and Gorman, 185–258 (Chapter 8: "Introduction to Selected Libraries in China") and Ye Wa and Joseph W. Esherick, Chinese Archives: An Introductory Guide, China Research Monograph 45 (Berkeley, Calif.: Institute of East Asian Studies, 1996).

 About the Author

Roy L. Sturgeon has a juris doctor degree from Valparaiso University in Indiana, USA, a master of library science degree from St. John’s University in Queens, N.Y., USA, and is a master of laws candidate in Chinese law at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China.
E–mail: roylsturgeon [at] yahoo [dot] com.

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